I love food markets! Visiting them during our travels is one of my very favourite activities; I find them captivating!
I get so excited seeing all the goods for sale – fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, some of which I have never seen before… not to mention all the specialist food and drink products, with entire stalls dedicated to variations of a single item such as rice noodles, pickles, preserved seafood, offal…
I can watch vendors prepare and serve, and customers select and buy, for hours and hours without getting bored. Of course, food markets are often so visually stimulating that I cannot help but take a tonne of photographs, doing my best not to get in the way of those who work there, or are trying to do their shopping!
In January, we visited Hong Kong for the first time – a destination I’ve longed to visit for many years.
I was keen to explore the food markets I’d read about in Tai Po Market (the name applies to the neighbourhood and the local station). With limited mobility on my part, I wanted to see as much as we could in as short a routing as possible. Although I usually visit markets on my own, this time I booked us a guided walking tour with Hong Kong Food Crawlers, the idea being to tour the area with a local expert to help us identify what we were looking at and seek out the best things to eat and buy. Our private half day tour cost HK$ 1795 for the two of us, approximately £180 at the exchange rate during our visit.
On the day we meet founder and guide Ashley at Tai Po Market station, about 50 minutes by train from our home base in Tsim Sha Tsui. Tai Po is out in the New Territories of Hong Kong (not far from where Ashley grew up) and the market areas form the older part of the district.
Just a short hop from the station is the Tai Po Hui Market, housed in a huge and modern purpose-built multi-storey building since 2004.
We start the day with breakfast in the vast food court on the market building’s top floor.
First, a bowl each of savoury broth filled with fresh rice noodles (in three different styles) and topped with fish balls, fish cakes and crispy fish skin. Each filling bowl is HK$ 30 – about £3 at today’s exchange rate and is full of flavour and different textures. The soup is made by one of Ashley’s favourite shops in the food court, number CFS36.
We also enjoy another Hong Kong classic – deep fried French toast with butter, condensed milk and kaya (coconut) spread. Incredibly good! After those filling bowls of noodle soup, the three of us share a portion for HK$ 19, ordered from neighbouring shop CFS37.
Ashley also introduces us to a fabulously refreshing soft drink – a salty preserved lemon served with Seven Up lemonade – she uses the straw to break up the lemon so the flavour mixes into the drink to make it wonderfully salty sweet. HK$ 18.
On our way out to explore the rest of the market below, we pause for another sweet treat, a Chinese steamed red bean and rice flour pudding, served hot straight from the steamer. At just HK$ 5, this is a great value snack.
The wet market is split into sections and floors according to the kind of produce being sold – fish and meat, fruit and vegetables and all kinds of other products.
I’m mesmerised by the skilled actions of the salesmen and women and fascinated to see so many products that are unfamiliar to me.
At one grocery stall there are fungi that look like the kind of sponges I use to wash my face, others that look like carved wooden spearheads and some that look altogether alien in origin!
One stall specialises in rice noodles in all kinds of different shapes and textures, selling them by the weight. To one side of the stall sits an elderly lady, her fingers following a practised rhythm as she shapes fresh noodles by hand.
At another stall, a gloved and aproned man deftly makes fish balls, portioning and shaping the mix into medium sized spheres.
Mostly we just look, but I pause to buy some preserved egg yolks hanging from the awning of one of the stalls and Ashley buys us a gift of a popular snack called Ma Jai, rice crispies in a sticky sweet fried batter.
We eventually (and somewhat reluctantly on my part) leave the wet market building to stroll through the shops in the outdoor market area.
Within this district is a small Man Mo Temple.
By the way, there are several temples in the city with this name; this is not the one most commonly listed in the Hong Kong tourist guides, that one is located in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island.
This Man Mo Temple was built in 1891. Dedicated to the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo), it was first used as a the office for the village rural committee, where an arbitration service was provided to villagers and traders. It has been a place of worship for around 100 years, and locals often make a stop during their shopping excursions to ask for blessings for themselves and their families.
There’s something magical about the huge conical incense coils hung from the ceiling, and the smoky haze they create makes the small temple space more mysterious. It’s a good place to pause and rest from the busy bustle of the market outside.
Many of the shops in the streets outside sell similar fresh produce to the vendors inside the wet market building, but there are also shops selling dried preserved seafood, specialist foods and decoration for Chinese New Year (which falls soon after our visit), and a couple specialising in household and kitchenware.
I could easily spend hours more here, watching shop owners and shoppers in action…
Our guide Ashley, pausing for me to catch up once I’ve taken another thousand photos!
After an hour or two of exploring the markets, it’s time to stop for another treat and I’m delighted that Ashley takes us straight to Ah Poh Dau Fu Fa (Granny’s Tofu Flower) on Tai Kwong Lane, a place also recommended to me by my instagram and blogger friend LucyLovesToEat.
This place is hugely popular with locals and I suspect many of our fellow customers have made the pilgrimage from from outside the neighbourhood too – the silken tofu pudding here is that good!
It’s a very simple dessert – a bowl full of slippery smooth tofu swimming in ginger syrup and topped with bright yellow palm sugar, served hot or cold as you prefer.
At less than HK$ 10 per bowl, it’s hard to resist going back for more.
After our reviving tofu pudding, we head back to the train station to travel a couple of stops to Fo Tan.
I had mentioned to Ashley while planning our tour that I would love to see behind the scenes of products being made and she suggested visiting the factory space of a traditional Cantonese bakery, where we could watch the staff make and package a variety of traditional treats.
The company has been in business for over 40 years and sells to bakeries across Hong Kong, rather than through shops of its own. The factory is located on the 7th floor of the Century Industrial Center, but it’s not really meant to be open to visitors so you may be refused entry if you go on your own.
Ashley has already okayed our visit, so we’re welcomed in and allowed to watch the expert bakers at work.
Although the factory isn’t a shop, it is geared up for trade buyers coming in to purchase and the staff are happy for us to buy a few packets of their various specialities, all of which are just HK$4 per packet.
Of course, any keen visitor could head to Tai Po Market without a guide, and indeed some friends of ours in Hong Kong at the same time visited the next day after we enthused about our wonderful visit. But if your time is limited, or you would like to have a local expert at hand to tell you what you’re seeing, help you find all the best places and show you what to eat, then a food tour such as ours, from Hong Kong Food Crawlers, is an excellent idea.
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